Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman tells the story of indentured labour
The year was 1903 and a Brahmin woman set sail from Kolkata for a new life in the Caribbean. It wasn’t as exotic as it now sounds. Those on board suffered from fevers, severe headaches, vomiting and delirium. And when the woman finally got to British Guiana three months later, she disembarked as a “coolie”, the name given to the million indentured labourers recruited for post-slavery sugar plantations. Incredibly, she was also pregnant and alone.
Sujaria was also the American journalist Gaiutra Bahadur’s great-grandmother and, after a chance conversation about her grandfather, born on-board The Clyde in 1903, Bahadur became increasingly intrigued by the woman who changed the course of her family’s history.
Bahadur’s passion shines through in Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, her new non-fiction book, which today is in the running for the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing. Its real success is to balance Bahadur’s personal tale of discovery with the broader story of the 250,000 other “coolie women” who fled sometimes tricky personal circumstances in India only to find their new lives were another battle for survival.
“I was fired up by this story because it really did seem like indentured women had been neglected, lost and anonymous in history,” says Bahadur, who was born in Guyana in 1974. “It was important to me to excavate their names and their stories and to tell as many of their stories as I could – to give them the dignity of being historical, of being written into the record.”
It’s interesting that Bahadur should talk of dignity – the very title of her book comes loaded with historical prejudice. Several dictionaries still define “coolie” as “an unskilled labourer employed cheaply, especially one brought from Asia”.
“It was and is the right title for the subject,” she argues. “The book is about indenture and the word coolie is used in that context – so it’s historically appropriate. And figuratively, it’s the best way to capture the burdens that indentured women shouldered. The African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston writes that black women are ‘the mules of the world’. I use coolie in the same spirit, to capture this sense of burden.”
Although Coolie Woman is a historical record, Bahadur cleverly teases in contemporary relevances. She talks of her own emigration from Guyana to the United States in 1981 and it’s impossible to read this book without considering the decisions made by migrant labourers in the century since Sujaria made her own journey.
“I think this book will resonate with them,” agrees Bahadur. “We like to think that an exploitative system such as indenture is over, just like the British in the post-slavery period liked to think slavery was over. But the system by which people are recruited does have a lot in common: there are sometimes misrepresentations about the nature of the work and the pay, debt bondage, substandard housing. Now, as then, migration presents an opportunity but in the details that opportunity can be subverted.”
Exploring complex issues with such ease is surely one of the reasons the book has been shortlisted for The Orwell Prize. And yet Bahadur admits that she’s amazed that it’s even on the bookshelves. Coolie Woman was rejected by publishing houses at the last minute five times. Marketing executives were spooked by a book they said would never sell.
“They saw it as a marginal book about marginal people from a marginal place,” she says. “They worried that Guyana would be completely off the map for readers and that a story about indenture wouldn’t be compelling. So the shortlisting is validation after many years of stubbornly pursuing this book. It also means that more people will know about indenture and the struggles, the reinventions and the courage of indentured women.
“It means, perhaps, that their stories will no longer be seen as marginal.”
Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture is published by Hurst. The Orwell Prize will be announced today. For a full list of shortlisted books, go to www.theorwellprize.co.uk
Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM